By G. Michael Dobbs
Two very different but very good movies are featured in this week’s movie review column.
From Up on Poppy Hill
The names Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki may not mean a whole lot to the average moviegoer, but perhaps the works that have come from this filmmaker and his studio might: “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” “Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away,” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.”
Simply put, Miyazaki and his team have been responsible for some of the most outstanding animated features during the past 25 years.
Unlike so many American animation studios, Miyazaki does not rely on story formulas and merchandising but rather uses animation to tell stories that can be challenging to the viewer.
The result is that every time a film comes out of his organization there is excitement from fans. Studio Ghibli has set the kind of standard that used to be assigned to the Disney studio here.
“From Up on Poppy Hill” is no exception. There are no magicians, ghosts or monsters in this film. It is based on a manga (comic book) series that was published in 1980. It’s 1963 and the story is set in Yokohama, Japan. Umi is in the 11th grade in high school. She runs a boarding house owned by her grandmother as her mother is away in the United States.
As a tribute to her late father, a ship’s captain who died during the Korean War, Umi runs signal flags up the flagpole next to the house every day before going to school.
At school, she’s a good student and she has noticed a boy named Shun, who runs the school’s newspaper. A very chaste, very understated romance develops between them until something from both their pasts stops it abruptly.
This is a subtle film, which might throw some people who expect something more fantastical from an animated feature.
One could argue that this story could have been filmed as a live action movie.
It could have, but animation filmmakers have the ability to present their stories with the precise visuals they believe will make it live and this is what happens here. The backgrounds are beautiful and evocative.
Umi and Shun are quite believable and sympathetic and I was certainly drawn into their story.
This is also a very Japanese film in that it portrays every day life in a specific place and time. There are themes that are universal here, but director Goro Miyazaki spoke at length in one of extras about setting the story in Yokohama. For him, the time and setting as well as the film’s main subplot of the students trying to save an old building on campus has deep meaning for him.
The dubbing and vocal performances by an American cast is quite good and isn’t as distracting as it could be.
I prefer subtitles myself and the two-disc Blu-ray set does have the original Japanese version.
Rated PG, this is not a film for little kids as there are none of the story elements that would entrance them. This film, however, might be a good movie to introduce pre-teens to a different kind of animated feature.
Don’t be a film snob and dismiss animation as kid’s stuff. “From Up on Poppy Hill,” is quite a delight.
Would You Rather
When I first saw the trailer for this film, I was given the impression it was a gore fest and I put off watching the movie for a couple of weeks until I was in the mood to endure such a production.
While the film is indeed very intense, I’m happy to report that director David Guy Levy understands that suspense can be built with a minimum of explicit material. This movie will make you wince.
It will make you cringe, but it won’t gross you out – well, maybe a little.
Brittany Snow plays Iris, a young woman who has left college to care for her brother who is fighting cancer and desperately needs a bone marrow transplant. They have no money, her marrow isn’t a match and she is at her wit’s end.
Her brother’s doctor introduces her to Shepard Lambrick (the always excellent Jeffrey Combs) who heads a family foundation designed to help people such as her. All she had to do is come to a dinner party and play a game. If she is the winner, she will have everything she needs to care for her brother, who will get the medical care he needs.
She reluctantly goes to the event and discovers a group of people who are in similar desperate circumstances and to their horror she and the others realize the game is one in which they must make decisions that would bring pain or death to themselves or others. If they try to leave, they are killed.
This film could have been an uninteresting bloody collection of clichés but it isn’t. It has an interesting political undertone and successfully shows how people react to unexpected pressure. The movie also avoids any black humor. It’s played seriously to its advantage.
Full of twists and turns, the intensity of “Would You Rather” is not for everyone, but if you’re up to a cinematic challenge, I’d recommend it.